Snow is not always white

In some coastal areas in Antarctica, the snow can look red, orange, green, or a blend of all three. This colour is natural and is actually made up of tiny microscopic living cells called snow-algae.

Red snow‐algae bloom on Léonie Island, Ryder Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. Courtesy of Matthew Davey.

Snow algae are tiny plants that can survive and bloom in the slushy snow during the polar summer. The photo on the cover of New Phytologist 222:3 shows a red snow-algae bloom on Léonie Island in Ryder Bay, deep within the Antarctic circle and just outside the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera research station.

As these are coastal locations, we had to travel to the bloom locations by small boat, unload all our research equipment and then walk to the bloom sites. We would take photographs of all the blooms to capture the size, colour, and other vegetation such as mosses, lichens, and sometimes a small grass species.

Courtesy of Matthew Davey.

Snow algae are found in snowfields across the cold regions of the planet, forming highly visible coloured patches below and on the snow surface. In Antarctica, they are likely to contribute significantly to terrestrial net primary productivity. Combined, snow algae could be the biggest land ‘plant’ in Antarctica.

So far, our knowledge of these plant communities has been limited. In our paper, we provide the first description of where the blooms are, the other organisms living with the snow algae (fungi, bacteria), what the algae are made of (sugars, proteins, fat content), and whether there are differences between the red and green blooms in our study site.

Our data show the complexity and variation within snow algae communities in Antarctica, and give us some initial clues about the contribution they make to ecosystem functioning.

Courtesy of Matthew Davey.

Matt Davey

Read the paper: Davey, M. P., Norman, L., Sterk, P., Huete‐Ortega, M., Bunbury, F. , Loh, B. K., Stockton, S., Peck, L. S., Convey, P., Newsham, K. K. and Smith, A. G. (2019) Snow algae communities in Antarctica: metabolic and taxonomic composition. New Phytologist 222:3: 1242-1255. doi: 10.1111/nph.15701

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